Bolt Threads: Driving real “transformation” through scientific discovery

June 3, 2015
By Jim Kim and Tanguy Chau, PhD

The term “transformational” is bandied about in Silicon Valley so often that the word has lost its true meaning. But while some entrepreneurs and investors have been generating a remarkable amount of hype for their next app or marketplace, leading venture capital firms to bestow the moniker “Software Valley” on the Bay Area, true innovation has been occurring in labs across the United States. Advances in biology are already revolutionizing a series of industries, from food to medicine to fuel. Now Bolt Threads, founded just five years ago, is set to bring textiles into the fold. Its team is creating new bioengineered materials—starting with engineered spider silk—that can deliver any combination of specific attributes.

The textiles industry is particularly ripe for an overhaul. For half a century, it has lacked modern innovation: the last true materials invention came when chemical engineering created and commercialized polyester in 1953. Anything developed since then, including Gore-Tex® and Dri-FIT™, are just new blends or combination of existing materials wrapped in flashy marketing.

By contrast, the Bolt Threads platform is creating entirely new materials. The company’s first application employs gene sequencing technologies to replicate spider silk production at a commercial scale. Thanks to its complex internal structure, spider silk is one of the strongest, lightest, and most promising materials. Think of the strength a delicate, pliable spiderweb must have to stop insects hurtling through the air. Apply those properties to textiles, and you get a fabric with 100 times the strength of reinforced steel but that is as soft and flexible as the most comfortable fabrics.

What struck Formation 8 originally about Bolt Threads’ founders, Dan Widmaier, David Breslauer and Ethan Mirsky, is that they were visionary biologists seeking to transform an antiquated industry. The concept behind Bolt Threads is simple—start with the best materials from nature and use bioengineering to create new fabrics that address our specific needs and uses. The execution, however, is massively complex. Many companies have made similar breakthroughs only to falter when moving from the lab to market. Crucially, the engineering team at Bolt Threads has been very successful in avoiding the pitfalls that typically sideline many promising technologies. Its strategy is distinguished by four elements:

  1. A long-term view of success. From inception, Bolt Threads has focused on large-scale commercialization and scalability, giving them the long-term perspective to develop technologies that could withstand the rigorous path to market.
  2. Capital efficiency. Rather than building a dedicated manufacturing plant, which would have required hundreds of millions of dollars, Bolt Threads has elected to pursue partnerships to ensure that it has the flexible manufacturing capacity to meet consumer demand.
  3. A platform for innovation. Bolt Threads used gene sequencing to identify thousands of different proteins that could produce specific attributes in spider silk. This intellectual property represents a huge competitive advantage that could be applied across a range of industries, from medicine to airplane production.
  4. A focus on quality and customization. Rather than competing solely on cost, Bolt Threads offers high-end quality products for the high-performance segment. Think mountain climbing apparel and elite athlete workout gear with a combination of properties that we could previously only imagine.

Bolt Threads’ technology also has important environmental benefits. Its focus on natural materials alleviates the need for petroleum, which is used to manufacture many synthetic textiles. By producing silk in the lab, Bolt Threads doesn’t have to rely on thousands of silkworms, a species struggling due to climate change. And its production methods give Bolt Threads great flexibility to innovate and be efficient in its use of natural resources.

We are on the verge of a total transformation of consumer apparel that will reach every person on the planet. In the next several years, Bolt Threads will ramp up production to manufacture tens of millions of pounds of fabric. More important, this breakthrough represents just the first in a wave of technology-driven products from natural materials.

The achievements of Bolt Threads should encourage entrepreneurs and investors to look beyond their comfort zone of apps and software to support true innovation and science. Together, we can unleash the true power of technology to address real problems and improve the lives of people around the world.